September 20, 2020. Job 42:1-6, Romans 14:7-9, Luke 5:1-11
Comfort in Chaos?
In 1562 kissing in public was banned in Naples. Those who kissed in public were punished – by death! 1562 was also the year when troops of Francis Duke of Guise massacred about 1200 Huguenot worshippers and citizens in Vassy, France. The massacre started the French Wars of Religion that lasted 36 years. It is estimated that three million people perished in this period from violence, famine, and disease. This was the second deadliest religious war in European history after the Thirty Years’ War between 1618 and 1648. The Thirty Years’ War resulted in the deaths of over 8 million people, including 20% of the German population, making it one of the most destructive conflicts in human history. The next year, 1563 King Charles IX of France was declared an adult at age 13, Russian troops occupy Polotsk, Lithuania, Francis Duke of Guise was shot by a Protestant, and all Jews were expelled from France.
These were turbulent and dangerous times. During a time of war, a period when a slight departure from official church doctrine was punishable by death, Elector Frederick III commissioned the composition of a new Catechism for his territory. Two theologians from the University of Heidelberg in Germany, Ursinus and Olevianus wrote a document that became known as the Heidelberg Catechism. The Heidelberg Catechism, together with the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dodt and the Belhar confession, form the Standards of Reformed theology.
Divided into 52 sections, with 129 questions and answers, the Heidelberg Catechism discusses the main theological themes of Reformed theology.
It opens with a timeless question: What is your only comfort in life and in death?
This is a question that I think many of us are asking during our own turbulent and dangerous times.
Perhaps some formulate the question a bit differently: “Is there comfort at all?” When we listen to the news, it is not uncommon or even surprising to feel a bit cynical and depressed about life. Covid19 deaths and tens of thousands of new cases every day, fires, hurricanes, unemployment, deficits, riots, political differences and conspiracy theories are a few recent headlines. How will it all end? When will things return to some form of normalcy?
People are lonely and scared. My heart goes out to our younger families and the stress they have at the moment. In person or virtual classes? What if the covid19 cases go up again? I recently heard from a friend who has two kids in college. One is in college but she is home doing everything online. She is deeply unhappy because this was not what she expected. The other is in her dorm but it is not really campus life. She even has to eat her meals alone in her dorm room. And yet the college expenses remain the same. Is there any comfort at all?
Others want to find comfort by escaping from what is causing stress and anxiety. I came across an article with the title: “Covid19 is the perfect storm in the addiction world.” The numbers of people who are now struggling with addiction problems are staggering and heartbreaking.
There are people who think that death provides comfort. I was shocked to learn that 132 Americans commit suicide every day.
Some are convinced that “they will find comfort if only they have enough savings, or enough material things”.
There are others, who during this time of social isolation and deeply rooted anxiety, find comfort in belonging to a group of likeminded people. A group that is distinct from other groups. Now there is nothing wrong with wanting to belong to group for humans are social and group beings. We belong to a church, there are social, political, interest, and sport groups. Groups without any doubt add value and they provide good networks and connections.
I am not a sociologist or psychologist, but I think that during this time of isolation there are people who need their group to play a bigger role in providing them with a sense of belonging and comfort. Is it possible that anxious and lonely people during these times, in order to find a sense of comfort, define their group as exclusive and better than other groups?
Is it possible that my political affiliation has become more than just about my political philosophy- it has become almost tribal – my tribe is better than yours! Yours is in fact a threat to mine! Belonging to a group of people who pushes conspiracy theories in the internet, provides some people with comfort of belonging. It is a known fact that some young people who are yearning for a sense of belonging and comfort, join street gangs.
Needless to say, this kind of comfort does not last! The kinds of comfort that the world provides will never be able to fill the void that only God can fill! There has to be another kind of comfort that withstands the test of life and even death! There has to be a comfort that lasts in spite of all the disturbing and troubling things that life throws at us! A comfort that is not influenced by external factors; a comfort that is lasting, that brings peace, that makes whole and is not as fickle as what the world offers.
The answer, based on various texts in the Bible appears in the introduction of the Heidelberg Catechism:
Q. What is my only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own,but belong— body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
The comfort of knowing that I belong, body and soul, in life and in death to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, does not imply that life is a bed of roses. Life can be hard and unfair. If you have never experienced how hard and unfair life can be, or if you’ve never suffered, just wait- it will eventually happen.
Our reading from the Book of Job, gives us a glimpse of how hard and random life can be. You all know the story of Job and his friends. Job’s friends were convinced that only people who sin, will suffer. Job disagreed and the book, beautifully written, concludes that suffering is not because you’ve done something wrong.
Job had to learn that there are many things in life that we don’t fully comprehend. Life is in many ways a mystery. But Job reaches a conclusion that in spite of the impenetrable mystery, God can do all things. In spite of his inability to comprehend everything, his failure of figuring out everything, he can rely on God for God is trustworthy! This was the OT way of saying that Job found comfort in God!
It did not take Peter long to reach the same conclusion that God is at work in Jesus Christ. When Jesus called Peter at the lake of Gennesaret and Jesus told Peter to cast the nets, Peter was hesitant: “We have worked all night long but have caught nothing.” But when they caught so many fish that his boat was about to sink, he fell down saying: “Go away from me Lord for I am a sinful man.”
However, we know that Peter had not always placed his unconditional trust in Jesus. His life was a roller coaster of enthusiastic commitment and spectacular failure. But ultimately in John 21 after Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved Jesus, Peter responded: “You know everything, you know that I loved you.”
Why does it seem that it is only at the end of the chapter that Job and Peter realize that they can unconditionally place their trust in God? Why don’t they do it earlier? Maybe it is because it is not always easy for human beings to find their real comfort outside of themselves and in God! Maybe it is because we are conditioned to work things out, to trust ourselves, and to rely on our own abilities. Or maybe, it reveals a subtle invitation to seek and find lasting comfort in God. And perhaps it urges us to do so sooner rather than later.
For when we rely on ourselves we will never really find true comfort. Let’s see if you can relate to this saying: “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.” You constantly worry about misfortune that never happens.It has also been called anticipatory anxiety! This is how it is with most of us – we worry, we are stressed out- unless we find our comfort in God. But then unfortunately these worries often remain! There will always be some restlessness, some anxiety for the uncertainty of the future, fear of life’s randomness, the discomforting and burning question: “What if this or that happens to me?”
The question: “what is my only comfort in life and in death” is or should be a question that we need to ask every morning, every afternoon and every evening – for we need to constantly remind ourselves of the answer. Trusting God is not a destination – it is a life-long journey, something we have to practice every day!
Which brings us to the Romans reading: “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.”
The one essential truth of Christian existence is that we belong to the Lord in life and death. This was the reason why early Christians could sing hymns and pray to God in spite of being persecuted and sometimes killed by Roman authorities. The theological truth that we belong to the Lord in life and in death, provides comfort that is not linked to external factors, like financial security, or good health, or political connections and influence. Our only comfort is not based on or dependent on our accomplishments or our standing in the world. It is not dependent even on how big and strong my faith is, or on my pious work! As a matter of fact, our comfort is solely based on what Christ did for us! It is He who has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood. It is He who set me free from the tyranny of evil. It is He who watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven. It is because of him that all things work together for my salvation. I belong to Christ, and his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him. And the life we live for Him is one of joy, gratitude, and service because we know that “neither death, that separates us from our loved ones, nor life, with all the temptations and distractions, nor angels, nor rulers, with all their power, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:38-39). Amen!